Bosworth: the race to find the battlefield

The discovery of the Bosworth battlefield was one of the historical highlights of 2009, yet it very nearly never happened. Here, Glenn Foard describes how his team's painstaking efforts to pinpoint the site turned into a race against time

A helmet marks a trail over fields from the Bosworth Battlefield Heritage Centre, 2013. The site is close to the spot where the battle of Bosworth took place in 1485, and the place where King Richard III was killed. (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

This article was first published in the March 2010 issue of BBC History Magazine

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It was the tiniest of objects and, to the untrained eye, barely worth a second glance. But when a single lead ball – a mere 30mm in diameter – was discovered in a Leicestershire field at the beginning of March 2009, it was to transform a faltering project to pinpoint the site of one of Britain’s most significant battles into a race against the clock.

The discovery of this diminutive artefact was the turning point in the Battlefield Trust’s three-year project to establish, once and for all, the true site of the battle of Bosworth. Before that discovery, we were running out of time fast – with one just week of fieldwork still available to us. After it, we knew we had found our prize – and it was in the very last area at the edge of the survey.

Our suspicions were confirmed the following day when, in a neighbouring field, we found a 60mm lead ball – which could only be round shot fired by artillery during the battle. This was enough to secure an extension to the project timetable – an extension that brought us eight more round shot in the following four weeks.

Three years earlier, we had begun our search for the battlefield knowing that the battle of Bosworth was thus named simply because Bosworth was the nearest market town in the 15th century. We also knew that the earliest recorded battle name was ‘Redemore’, which suggests that the battle took place on a low, wet moor. In the 1980s, the local historian Peter Foss showed that this lay somewhere within or immediately adjacent to Dadlington township (see map 1, opposite). We confirmed Foss’s theory with other documentary references, proving the battlefield was located in the general area shown by Saxton’s atlas of 1575 (see map on this page). This was all well and good, but none of the documents specify exactly where Redemore lay.

Peter Foss had noted that the battle had also been called ‘Dadlington Field’, while the chantry in memory of the dead lay in the chapel in the village of Dadlington. This implies that the main mass graves – which are typically located at the heart of the action or in the rout at the end of the battle – had been dug somewhere in the territory served by the Dadlington chapel.

Next we turned to the detailed topographical evidence in the original accounts of the battle. According to the historian Vergil’s account of the clash, written in the early 16th century, “Between the armies was a marsh which Henry purposely kept on his left so it would serve to protect his men. By the doing thereof also he left the sun upon his back”.

The accounts say that Richard died when his horse became stuck in a mire. So finding the marsh was absolutely crucial

This tactic allowed Henry to attack the right wing of Richard’s army. The accounts also say that Richard died when his horse became stuck in a mire. This meant that finding the marsh was crucial to locating the action. So we constructed a map of the medieval open fields of the five townships, using archaeological and documentary evidence, because the marsh could not have lain where open field arable existed. Then we carried out a soils survey which allowed us to determine where the soils had developed in waterlogged conditions, and found that these matched the areas of meadow on our map of the medieval landscape.

Significantly, the survey proved there had never been a marsh on Ambion Hill (where 18th-century histories placed the battle). Instead it drew us more than a mile south-west towards an area where low ground lay beside several small streams – the general area where Foss had suggested the marsh lay and the battle was fought. Place-name study further narrowed the search, for fen-related names lay on either side of the streams close to where they were crossed by the former main road from Atherstone to Leicester, in origin Roman but now a minor road called the Fen Lane. The latter was the most likely line of approach to the battlefield by the two armies – Richard from Leicester the day before, and Henry from Atherstone on the morning of the 22nd.

Next we instigated an intensive programme of soil augering (examining the character of the soil), followed by trenching, which identified a surviving peat deposit in Fen Meadow, beside the eastern stream, buried beneath later alluvium. This looked like it was the marsh mentioned by Vergil – exactly where Foss had suggested the battle was fought. We seemed close to the answer.

Unusual finds

Though the metal detecting survey had systematically examined a wider area, testing seven square kilometres, for more than a year it was now focussed on Foss’s suggested site. During this time, we discovered two small groups of unusual finds, one of which lay beside the site of Dadlington windmill, which seemed to relate to the battle.

Frustratingly, however, there was nothing to compare to the extensive scatter of finds that has been recovered from the Towton battlefield. Then came devastating news: while pollen analysis confirmed a former marsh, the carbon-14 dating of the peat deposit showed it had disappeared more than 500 years before the battle. The evidence was now weighted heavily against Foss’s suggested site.

Following a clue provided by a local farmer we had identified a second but much smaller peat deposit that the initial augering had missed. It was more than half a mile away, beside the western stream in an area immediately adjacent to the name Fen Hole. Though this initially seemed too small to have been tactically significant, scientific dating confirmed that Fen Hole had continued as a marsh into the medieval period. Could this by the marsh that Virgil had referred to?

Evidence of the arrow storm that preceded the hand-to-hand fighting may still await us

It lay close to the heart of the distribution of fen names, while our work on the place-name evidence revealed the extent to which heath extended from here, both south and east. This recalled other names for the battle: Bosworth Heath or Brown Heath. However, the sample areas near Fen Hole that our detecting team had scoured in the earlier stages of the survey had produced nothing of interest – one reason we had initially dismissed the area.

In the beginning of March 2009, with time running out fast, we went back with our metal detectors to fill in the remaining gap left by the earlier sampling. It was then, within an hour of renewing our search, that we discovered the 30mm single lead ball. By the end of March, we had eight lead munitions – enough to get agreement to another season of fieldwork. Work restarted after the harvest and the tally has since grown to 25, with the scatter covering almost a square kilometre.

At present, it seems likely that we are seeing fire exchanged between armies on the north and south sides of Fen Lane. Associated with the round shot are other significant objects including a boar badge, a silver Burgundian coin and other medieval coins, a sword chape, a gold ring and a small number of buckles (see page 24 for more on these finds). Remarkably, we can now see that over previous years we had surveyed to within a few metres of the scatter of round shot on three sides and found little to suggest we were on the battlefield.

The arrow storm

With hindsight, the area beside Fen Hole may seem an obvious location. It matches a 17th-century antiquary’s description of the battlefield as a flat plain. It is within sight of Crown Hill, beside the main concentration of fen names, and the Fen Lane runs through it. But it lies mostly in Upton township, in a location never before considered a potential site for the battle. Indeed this may be why documentary research has failed to find an accurate location for Redemore or Sandeford – because no one has yet searched the archives for Upton, as it was so peripheral to all previous interpretations of the battle.

Because we spent so much time finding the battlefield, much remains to be done to understand it. We still, for example, need to search the archives for Upton for the lost place-names. We are not yet confident of the exact extent of the round shot scatter and we need to carry out further experimental firing to establish the range of the guns. All the detecting has been for non-ferrous artefacts – we have not even begun the far more time consuming search for arrowheads and other iron artefacts. So evidence of the great arrow storm that preceded the hand-to-hand fighting may still await us.

The success at Bosworth has been achieved by a team that included not just archaeologists but also historians, soil and environmental scientists and a place-name expert. But the critical contribution has been from the small group of metal detectorists who worked to a strict archaeological survey methodology. They have been a vital cog in a project that has fully vindicated the new methodology of battlefield archaeology, showing its potential to resolve long-standing problems in military history and advance understanding of the changing character of early warfare.

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Dr Glenn Foard, who directed the Bosworth investigation, is a leading battlefield archaeologist. He has written on fields of conflict across Britain, and conducted major studies of Edgehill and Naseby.